Music Review: Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile – The Goat Rodeo Sessions

Hi all!

Somewhere, the music gods are smiling over the holidays. The stars aligned and brought classical music together with Bluegrass, achieving some truly astounding results. But let me take a step back.

Yo-Yo Ma is a world-class cellist who has made a career not only out of gorgeous classical music, but for pushing boundaries and collaborating with musicians of any and all genre – from A Capella maestro Bobby McFerrin to one of the pre-eminent violinists of the last century Itzhak Perlman – not to mention working with orchestras around the world and helping out with music education efforts worldwide. Thankfully, the world has recognized his efforts and he’s been awarded multiple awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010, and serves as a UN Messenger of Peace and on the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities.

And now he can add a collaboration with Bluegrass artists Chris Thile (mandolin – member of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers), Edgar Meyer (bass), and Stuart Duncan (fiddle). The result is a collection of songs in The Goat Rodeo Sessions that not only debuted at #1 on the Bluegrass, Classical, and Classical Crossover Billboard charts, but has made it to #18 on the Billboard Top 200 and at #11 on Soundscan’s Digital Album Chart. And if all that attention isn’t enough to get you to listen this album, I encourage you to watch this video of their performance on The Colbert Report:

Though I’ve listened to my share of classical music over the years, one of my more recent discoveries has been the life and energy in Bluegrass music. Groups like Crooked Still and the Greencards have brought a new joy to my ears in recent years. So I think I was on a collision course with this album from the first time I heard the quartet play in the videos on Colbert.

What blows my mind is the control of these musicians and the dynamic passion that ebbs and flows through every note. Sure, there are some slower songs – but damn if these folks don’t fly across the strings. Chris Thile sums it up nicely – “The arrangements on the record are ‘like a reverse game of Jenga‘” he says, “trying to get all the players to land at the same place at the end of the songs.” It’s rare these days that I’ll find that a song is so quiet that I need to turn it up to hear the beginning, and yet with songs like “Here and Heaven,” I had to just that – and then to have it build to such a satisfying crescendo with the vocals and harmonies of Aoife O’Donovan and Thile… I literally am in heaven every time I hear it.

“Quarter Chicken Dark” has a groove that just sticks in my brain long after the song is done, forcing me to go back and listen to it again before too long. Meyer’s bass merged with Ma’s cello drives this song from the bottom up. And it’s one of those grooves that rises and falls and I swear they could just keep playing this one song from sunset to sunrise and I’d still be listening. “Less is Moi” has the same addictive quality with a different riff that uses Duncan’s plectrum banjo and Thile’s mandolin to drive things forward.

So just what is a “goat rodeo” you may ask… Mr. Ma puts it like this – “If there were forks in the road and each time there was a fork, the right decision was made, then you get to a goat rodeo.” I don’t know about you, but this album proves that sometimes you can put lightning in a bottle. The Goat Rodeo Sessions is now among my favorite albums to listen to for no reason at all but the sheer pleasure of doing so. I can only hope that the success of this album will lead to more collaborations in the future!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.com here.

–Fitz

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[Music Review] VOCAbuLarieS – Bobby McFerrin

Hello there!

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I discovered the world of a cappella. A group of us from high school (and then into college) started listening to The Nylons, a doo-wop a cappella group that sang such classics as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” the “Duke of Earl,” “Poison Ivy,” and “(All I Have To Do Is) Dream.” In those few years I think we saw them at least once a year, sometimes twice as they’d tour the Front Range of Colorado. A group singing “a cappella” means that they sing without instrumental accompaniment. No drums, no backing band, just raw, naked vocal talent. It takes more than simply having a great voice – you must also be able to hear the harmonies around you and keep to your part while those around you are singing sometimes wildly different melodies or sounds.

So when I first heard Bobby McFerrin, I was already familiar with the concepts of a cappella. Yes, this is the man who sings “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” – but don’t let that throw you off. “Don’t Worry” was a big hit back in the late ’80s and inspired many to take the time to stop, slow down, and enjoy life for a while. When I bought the album Simple Pleasures on tape (yes, it was that long ago), I was stunned to discover that the man who sang the slacker anthem of my high school was one heck of a talented vocalist with a range that stuns me even today and the gift to create sounds that I still have no idea how the human vocal cords can make.

Like I tend to be with many artists, I visited McFerrin’s realm several times over the next few years, enjoying his albums Medicine Music and Bang! Zoom before his career faded a bit.

In late 2009, I watched The Sing-Off with my family on NBC, which was a competition for amateur a cappella groups from around the world that lasted about a week. Though I’d listened to a few podcasts featuring some of the amazing college a cappella groups around the United States and beyond, it was great to see groups like Nota and the Beelzebubs sing their hearts out for a recording contract. And in the season finale, Bobby McFerrin walked on stage and sang “Drive” with the finalists. The chance to see him perform live with these younger artists, even on television, was enough to remind me of all of his amazing work I’d enjoyed 15-20 years ago.

Now in 2010, McFerrin has released his latest project – VOCAbuLarieS. Only a master of his own voice and singing with others would consider taking more than 1,400 vocal tracks from members of Voicestra, his singing ensemble, and fine vocalists from the worlds of jazz, opera, performance art, early music, cabaret, and rock and roll including Grammy-winning recording artists like R&B singer Lisa Fischer, Brazilian jazz innovator Luciana Souza, Janis Siegel of the Manhattan Transfer, and the stellar ensemble singers of New York Voices. This is truly a magnificent achievement.

The album starts off with the song “Baby,” which first appeared on Medicine Music in 1990. But this version definitely isn’t stuck in the 1990s. Somehow the layers and layers of voices and whistling not only add to the already rich melodies, but give a depth to the song that wasn’t in the original. It provides a good bridge to the past and to what McFerrin and his singing companions will do throughout the rest of the album.

“Wailers,” “The Garden,” and “He Ran for the Train” all seem to have a tribal African feel to them. But “Messages” had a vaguely Indian or Asian feel with the tiny cymbals in the background. And “Brief Eternity” feels like a Gregorian Chant at times in its intricately woven harmonies. So you can tell McFerrin continues to defy categorization. You can’t pin him to one musical style any more than you can trap the wind. And that remains yet another of his gifts.

Though I enjoyed the world-wide musical journey of VOCAbuLarieS, I almost feel that he’s lost his connection to the kidlike wonder that made his early albums more accessible. Simple Pleasures with its incredible energy will always be in the back of my mind when I hear McFerrin’s name. As Jon Bream said at the Star Tribune – “If Glee represents high school, the amazing vocalizing on this CD is a post-doctoral adventure.” I’m not typically one to go to the library to read someone’s doctorate, but if this is to be Bobby McFerrin’s magnum opus, it’s easy on the ears.

I hope to see him appear more often on the national stage in shows like The Sing-Off to inspire new generations of singers in person and through the infinite reach of television. And I hope that he continues to release albums – but I wish he’d visit the past to gain back some of that energy.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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